Monday, January 13, 2014

Seek the welfare of this city

Proper 23 C     October 13, 2013
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

When I drive around a city like Syracuse, I experience a profound sense of dislocation. None of these places are like they used to be. Whole industries have just picked up and moved, leaving behind the communities of people – immigrants from somewhere else -- who moved here to work in those industries. Several years ago, my brother, who has had a good, United Auto Workers-guaranteed job with Chrysler Corporation for many years, moved to Indiana, to work a last few years in order to keep his pension intact. When I go to Armory Square, I remember it as kind of seedy but industrial. The factories on West Fayette Street were busy places. People living on the West Side could walk to work. To work. I’m kind of shocked to learn that the zip code where I grew up – 13204 – is one of the poorest in the nation. As we survey the urban, industrial landscape in America, you could describe it all as an experience of exile, from decades of stable jobs, stable families, stable neighborhoods.

In our Old Testament lesson, we are in the land of the exiles. Jeremiah is again preaching to the exiles in Babylon, those who have been uprooted by force, by the violence of an invading army, and transported to a foreign land, the place, as we read in the psalm of exile, Psalm 137, where the people could not conceive of finding God: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” But Jeremiah, the prophet who told these people that their own faithless behavior caused God to send them into exile – this same Jeremiah now comes back at them with a word of hope.

Ok, he says, there you are in that foreign city, that unrecognizable place, where you have been thrown into exile. But that is the very place where God wants you: where God wants you to settle down, to build homes and gardens, to have families and children, to live and prosper. Seek the welfare of that very city where you now live – not the city of your romantic, longed-for or nostalgic past. Not the city where things used to be so good. Seek the welfare of THIS city. Pray that God bless THIS city. For it is in the welfare of THIS city that you will find your welfare.

The Hebrew word for welfare is shalom, a word used 397 times in the bible! It is translated into English in many ways, reflecting the complexity of how it is used in Hebrew. Shalom means peace, weal – as in “Commonweal” or “Commonwealth” – it means completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, to be at rest, at ease, to be secure, or safe, or to prosper, to be whole, to be perfect, to be victorious. It is at the heart of the word “Jerusalem” – salem. It is the same as the Arabic word, salaam. If we move into Greek, the language of the New Testament, shalom might be understood as what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God:” the time and place when the justice, mercy and love of God prevail.

To work toward that vision of God’s shalom in this place is to work toward nothing we have seen before. Not in Syracuse, not in DeWitt, not at St. David’s. Jeremiah’s prophecy is that we are all in new territory now.

When the city of Jerusalem was invaded, and the leaders and people carried off in captivity to Babylon, there were some Jews who stayed behind. They lived in occupied territory, and they really lived there. Meaning they intermarried with the occupiers, and in the eyes of the exiles in Babylon, they were traitors. Since they did not suffer the pains of exile, and “collaborated” with the enemy, they were pariahs. When the Jews came back from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, they treated these stay-behinds no longer as kinsmen, but as enemies. They were the Samaritans. Even the passing of hundreds of years could not erase this animosity, and as late as the days of Jesus, faithful Jews could barely spit out the name, “Samaritans.” The name was short-hand for everything disreputable, bad and unclean.

What a shocking story then Jesus tells, about lepers and gratitude. This is not just a story about how polite people say thank you (although this IS one of the appointed lessons for Thanksgiving Day). This is a story about God’s shalom, God’s wholeness, God’s health. About who is the citizen of God’s commonwealth. The only one who is truly whole is the one the other nine despised, the one marked by some as unclean forever. The one forever “other” than Jesus’ own people, the people of the covenant, the people who thought they were automatically assured of God’s grace.
The peace of God, then, is, amazingly, caught up in the peace of the other. Our welfare is inextricably tied up with the welfare of complete strangers. Our wholeness is wrapped up in the wholeness of our enemies. Our health is entwined with the health of people we consider “beneath us.” When we walk out of these doors, we pass Springfield Gardens, we go down South Salina Street, we’re on West Fayette Street. Our future will look nothing like our past, and this is where we plant our garden.

Following Jesus is no spectator sport

Proper 18 C     Sept. 8, 2013
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Imagine we are among those “large crowds” that were travelling with Jesus. What would we want Jesus to be saying to us? Why would we be there?

We might be hungry, and want to be fed. (Didn't we hear somewhere that Jesus did just that?) We might be sick or disabled, and want Jesus to heal us. We might be estranged from our communities, and want to go back home. We might just want to have fun! (We also heard that Jesus went to house parties, and that, indeed, Jesus created a party wherever he went. Remember how he turned that water into wine?)
In this passage today, Jesus does none of those things: no feeding, no healing, and not much fun. He talks about hate, he talks about war, he talks about engineering.

Now a sidebar: I don’t think President Obama would like these lessons today, because together – the passage from Jeremiah and this one from Luke – they say some things about the judgment of God on human actions that might not be brought up in the White House situation room. Jesus talks about a king needing to be fully prepared before he goes to war – and if the odds for victory are not good, the king starts to negotiate the terms of peace. Jeremiah uses the image of the potter’s wheel, to talk about the utter dependence of humans on God. Just as God created us, and our nations and kingdoms, God can destroy. Jeremiah is speaking for God against the evil the people of Israel did in the sight of God, and warning them that God’s judgment will break them. Indeed, that is just how the people of Israel understood what did happen to them, when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, and took the Jews captive with them. Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah helped the people understand that their turning away from the covenant with God caused this to happen. The nation strayed, but God, and Jeremiah, loved the people and wanted them back. The Jews probably did not see this at the time, but years later they understood that that foreign invasion was led by the hand of God.

Would this exegesis go over well in the situation room? Maybe, but it is of course impossible to say how history will judge our actions in this terrible situation in Syria. What is clear from the Biblical record, however, is that God will, and does, judge us. How do we measure up to the expectations God has for the way God wants us, his beloved people, to live?

Jesus phrases those expectations in particularly serious ways. In addition to those reasons I mentioned before, about why the crowd might be following him, add the knowledge that Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem. People in the crowd might be following Jesus because they are itching for a fight: they are from Galilee, and they want to stick it to those powers and principalities in Jerusalem. They are tired of being under the thumb of the Roman Empire, tired of being exploited by their own people. Or they might be following Jesus as one might follow a funeral procession; perhaps they know the end is near, that their hopes for a new way of living may come to naught.

We sense Jesus’ impatience with these adoring crowds, who after all this time still do not get it. When Jesus says, “hate your family,” that is not about cruelty or violence; that is about detachment. It’s like throwing cold water in their faces. Discipleship is serious stuff, Jesus says. God commands all. To whom do you belong? To all of your possessions and attachments? Or to God? To this God who has known you from the beginning of your existence, this God who called you out of nothing, this God from whom you can never hide, this God who molded you lovingly and beautifully as a potter forms the clay? Does God want us to abandon our families and let them starve? No. Jesus was human like us, bringing life and health and abundance and food to those who needed them. But Jesus does ask, when he talks about the cost of discipleship, to whom do you belong? Are you really prepared to give up things that do not matter, in order to bring about the things that do?

Look again at this passage from the letter of Paul to Philemon. Paul is discussing a slave, Onesimus. Scholars are divided about what Paul is saying here. Free the slave? Send him back to me? Is Paul acknowledging the social reality of slavery in the first century Roman Empire? Is he speaking from his lifetime as a Jew, who could not own slaves, because Jews are always called to remember that once they themselves were slaves in Egypt? At every turn our lessons today draw us into painful and still-existing social, political and economic conflicts. Paul does not address those conflicts directly here, but the passage would cause discomfort and soul-searching among early Christians. Did not Paul write in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus?”

Following Jesus is no spectator sport. Following Jesus – to Jerusalem or to anywhere – does not take us out
of this world, but further into it: into that place where there are no easy answers, whether it is about invading Syria, or if the food we put on our table is “fair trade” or picked by 21st century slaves, or if we all the stuff we have gets in the way between us and God. Wrestling with what all those things mean in our lives makes us disciples; that wrestling is part of the cost of discipleship, part of what Jesus is calling us to choose.

God expects more of us

Proper 17 C    September 1, 2013
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

When the people of Israel trudged out of Egypt all those many thousands of years ago, God expected something of them. Yes, God was generous, yes, God was gracious, yes, God provided, yes, God led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but really, this was not a free ride. God expected something of them.

The prophet Jeremiah is trying to explain to the people of Israel, now happily ensconced in privilege and luxury in the Promised Land, that God expected something from them when God led them out of Egypt and brought them to this place that they now call home. Jeremiah is trying to explain to them that God is not so happy with them now. Jeremiah is God’s mouthpiece, calling these people back to their first principles, to the events that shaped and formed them as the people of God.

This call to repentance and return would be fairly easy if the people of God were a collection of individuals. Stories of individuals who repent and return to the Lord are very popular – always have been. There was a tv show a few years ago called My Name is Earl. Earl, kind of a ne’er-do-well, finds he has a winning lottery ticket, but at the same time he finds the ticket, he gets hit by a car, and has the revelation that this is a sign – that he should now spend his time doing good things, that his life was spared for this purpose. He turns his life around. Now, this is a comedy, not an inspirational show, so all of Earl’s attempts to do good things are played for laughs. But the theme of an individual who can turn his life around, can return to his origins as a good and generous person, does strike a powerful chord in our hearts.

Think also of the beloved holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, where miserly Scrooge – himself the very definition of greed and selfishness – gets hit over the head with the consequences of his miserliness. He wakes from nightmares on Christmas morning, a new person, determined to be generous to the people he knows who are in need.

The problem with these wonderful tales of individual repentance and change in direction are just that: they are individual. And of course, I suppose, we must all start somewhere, and the place we start is right here. I bet the people of Israel, whom Jeremiah is very busy scolding, -- I bet each individual among the people of Israel thought they were being good people, living good lives. They had really gotten into their good and prosperous life. Jeremiah accuses them of Ba’al worship – not worshiping God alone – which might be kind of like the search for good karma that Earl embarks on – kind of, I’ll do some good things, and some more good things will come my way.

But I don’t think that is quite what God had in mind. God called the WHOLE people of Israel out of Egypt – and as God called them, they BECAME a people. God wants a relationship with those people, not with a collection of individuals, but with all those people. If God was generous to them, God wants them – all of them, as a PEOPLE – to be generous with others. Thousands of years later, Jesus is preaching the same message: Friends, set the table and invite everyone in, and let least among you get the best seats. When Jesus delivered that little sermon on hospitality to his friends, in the back of their minds was the story of the deliverance from Egypt. “When I took you by the hand and brought you out of the land of Egypt,” they hear God say, in the back of their minds. One of the first obligations of this deliverance is to show generosity and hospitality to others – to show it to others as God showed it to them.

Say, like Earl, like Scrooge, we start with ourselves, with the little circle of each individual. It is fairly easy to understand hospitality on a personal level. But then, everything and everyone we hold sacred calls us to enlarge those circles, to take our personal understanding of welcome and hospitality to a wider group, indeed to become a community which opens its doors and hearts and minds. But it seems that we are then pushed and pulled to make the circle wider still – we are challenged to act as the people of God, as the people God created us to be, to bring the light of God’s justice to places that are dark, to bring the generosity of God’s abundance to places that are parched, to say to the ones society has rejected, Friend, come up higher, come to this table God prepares for us, come and eat and come with us, to go out and do the work God calls all of us to do.